It’s a few minutes before 5 a.m., still dark and bitterly cold, when I pull up to a long cinder-block smokehouse in West Columbia, South Carolina. A faint light from inside illuminates a massive pile of split logs that sits in the yard. As I approach the building, a large cargo door slides open and the silhouettes of a man and his dog appear beneath a struggling fluorescent bulb. His breath hangs in the frigid air as he extends a hand and welcomes me to Hite’s Bar-B-Que.
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David Hite has been on the graveyard shift since 7 p.m. the previous evening, burning fat logs of oak and hickory down to red-hot coals in a weathered brick fireplace and shoveling them under the 25-foot-long barbecue pit where whole hogs, racks of ribs, fresh hams, and slabs of pork skin cook slowly over the dry heat. We huddle around the fire to keep warm; Hite occasionally wanders off to gather more wood for the flames.
Hite, whose family has run the business since 1957, specializes in whole-hog barbecue. The meat is chopped, not shredded, as you might find in other areas of the state; crispy bits of rendered pork skin, aka cracklin’, are incorporated into the meat, creating crunchy little jewels in the otherwise soft pork.
It’s served with a mustardy sauce, a legacy of the mustard-loving German immigrants who settled this part of central South Carolina in the 1700s. Hite uses a massive whisk attached to an electric drill to mix the 10-gallon batches of sauce. He talks at length about the virtues of “new” and “old” pork skins. “Old” skins are those that came with the hogs he’s already cooking, but because customers demand these coveted crispy bits in their pork, Hite buys extra sheets of pork skin (aka “new” skins) from the butcher to render down for extra cracklin’. When ordering their barbecue, many regulars specify, “No new skins!” Hite understands—to his mind, old skins have more flavor.
At 7 a.m. Hite opens the pit, pulls some meat and crispy skin from the nearest hog, and drops it on a tattered cutting board. Over the years his thumb has worn down a patch on the wooden handle of the cleaver he uses to chop it. He makes a couple of sandwiches: one for his daughter’s school lunch and one for me.